Fighting the stereotype of pastoral jazz set forth in Norway by ECM stalwarts Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal, alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad has operated as his nation's free jazz ambassador for over two decades. Although a fixture on the bandstand when other adventurous Europeans visit Norway, Gjerstad is perhaps best-known for Detail, his powerful trio with bassist Johnny Dyani-and later, Kent Carter-and drummer John Stevens, which ended with the latter's death in 1994. On Ultima he emerges with another trio of comparable rhythmic sophistication and emotional power thanks to bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.
In fact, if there's a fault with this disc-length improvised epic recorded live in concert in 1997, it's that his kinetic rhythm section too often eclipses Gjerstad. Parker and Drake fit together like puzzle pieces, generating a shifting array of diverse rhythmic episodes for Gjerstad to improvise over, but there are moments when the saxophonist, if not quite gasping for breath, then clutching at melodic straws, lags well behind. He plays with a thin, Ornette-ish lilt that stands in stark contrast to the muscular force rumbling behind him. After each break in the action Gjerstad launches back in with renewed vigor, making nice sonic juxtapositions against Parker and Drake, but by the time each solo winds down he seems spent. He should stick to shorter pieces when paired with these titans; they steal the show here.